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Pearls from artists* # 152

"Between," soft pastel on sandpaper, 20" x 26"

“Between,” soft pastel on sandpaper, 20″ x 26″

* an ongoing series of quotations – mostly from artists, to artists – that offers wisdom, inspiration, and advice for the sometimes lonely road we are on.

The first picture I took of a black man was easy.

That’s the way it sometimes goes for me:  I start on a new series of pictures and right away, in some kind of perverse bait-and-switch, I get a good one.  This freak of a good picture inevitably inspires a cocky confidence, making me think this new project will be a stroll in the park.  But, then, after sometimes two or three more good ones, the next dozen are duds, and that cavalier stroll becomes an uphill slog.  It isn’t long before I have to take a breather, having reached the first significant plateau of doubt and lightweight despair.  The voice of that despair suggests seducingly to me that I should give up, that I’m a phony, that I’ve made all the good pictures I’m ever going to, and I have nothing more worth saying.

That voice is easy to believe, and, as photographer and essayist (and my early mentor) Ted Orland has noted, it leaves me with only two choices:  I can resume the slog and take more pictures, thereby risking further failure and despair, or I can guarantee failure and despair by not making more pictures.  It’s essentially a decision between uncertainty and certainty and, curiously, uncertainty is the comforting choice.

Sally Mann in Hold Still:  A Memoir with Photographs

Comments are welcome!         

Q: So much of the art one sees in New York is ugly, but your art is consistently beautiful. Is beauty important to you?

Barbara's studio

Barbara’s studio

A:  Yes, beauty is extremely important.  In some art circles it is not fashionable to say so, but I completely agree with the photographer, Robert Adams, who writes,  “… the goal of art is Beauty.”  I’ll leave it to others to decide if this quality is reached in my pastel paintings, but I certainly strive towards it. 

Comments are welcome!  

Pearls from artists* # 126

Self-portrait with "Blue Misterioso"

Self-portrait with “Blue Misterioso”

* an ongoing series of quotations – mostly from artists, to artists – that offers wisdom, inspiration, and advice for the sometimes lonely road we are on.

Photography is an elegiac art, a twilight art.  There is no subject the photographer might attempt that could not be touched with pathos.  All photogrpahs are memento mori.  To take a photograph is to participate in another person’s (or thing’s) mortality, vulnerability, mutability.  precisely by slicing out this moment and freezing it, all photographs testify to time’s relentless melt.

Photography by Susan Sontag in Anthology:  Selected Essays from Thirty Years of The New York Review of Books, edited by Robert S. Silvers and Barbara Epstein

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Pearls from artists* # 96

 

Diane Arbus Revelations

Diane Arbus Revelations

* an ongoing series of quotations – mostly from artists, to artists – that offers wisdom, inspiration, and advice for the sometimes lonely road we are on.

My final day at the magic shop [in Disneyland, where he worked as a teenager], I stood behind the counter where I had pitched Svengali decks and the Incredible Shrinking Die, and I felt an emotional contradiction: nostalgia for the present. Somehow, even though I had stopped working only minutes earlier, my future fondness for the store was clear, and I experienced a sadness like that of looking at a photo of an old, favorite pooch. It was dusk by the time I left the shop, and I was redirected by a security guard who explained that a photographer was taking a picture and would I please use the side exit.

I did, and saw a small, thin woman with hacked brown hair aim her large-format camera directly at the dramatically lit castle, where white swans floated in the moat underneath the functioning drawbridge. Almost forty years later, when I was in my early fifties, I purchased that photo as a collectible, and it still hangs in my house. The photographer, it turned out, was Diane Arbus. I try to square the photo’s breathtaking romantic image with the rest of her extreme subject matter, and I assume she saw this facsimile of a castle as though it were a kitsch roadside statue of Paul Bunyan. Or perhaps she saw it as I did: beautiful.

Quoted by A.D. Coleman in Photocritical, May 28, 2014, from Born Standing Up: A Comic’s Life by Steve Martin

Comments are welcome! 

Q: Where do you want your work to go in the future?

Barbara's studio

Barbara’s studio

A:  Recently I answered a question about why I create, but now that I think about it, the same answer applies to what I want to do as an artist in the future:  

~ to create bold and vibrant pastel paintings and photographs that have never existed before  

~ to continue to push my primary medium – soft pastel on sandpaper – as far as I can and to use it in more innovative ways  

~ to create opportunities for artistic dialogue with people who understand and value the work to which I am devoting my life  

The last has always been the toughest.  I sometimes think of myself as Sisyphus because expanding the audience for my art is an ongoing uphill battle.  Many artist friends tell me they feel the same way about building their audience.  It’s one of the most difficult tasks that we have to do as artists.  I heard Annie Leibovitz interviewed on the radio once and remember her saying that after 40 years as a photographer, everything just gets richer.  Notice that she didn’t say it gets any easier; she said, “it just gets richer.”  I have been a painter for nearly  30 years and a photographer for 11.  I agree completely.  All artists have to go wherever our work goes.  Creating art and watching the process evolve is an endlessly fascinating intellectual journey.  I wouldn’t want to be spending my time on earth doing anything else!

Comments are welcome!

Pearls from artists* # 70

New York, NY

New York, NY

* an ongoing series of quotations – mostly from artists, to artists – that offers wisdom, inspiration, and advice for the sometimes lonely road we are on.

Ultimately, whether you like a photograph or not, it has a history behind it.  When people look at a photograph, they want to believe in its authenticity, that they’re looking at something special that can’t be repeated.  The artist’s eye, the photographer’s eye, has created a moment of truth by pushing the button on the camera.  The issue is not that the moment is separate from the rest of the photograph; it is the element that links what’s happening to the  rest of the image, and the photographer creates a higher meaning, a higher sensibility, in that instant.  That’s difficult to achieve for most people who are involved in photography as artists.  It’s an essential part of basic photography that’s learned on the street and in traditional ways that people used to do photography.

Roger Ballen in Lines, Marks, and Drawings:  Through the Lens of Roger Ballen

Comments are welcome!

Q: What have you learned about the people of Mexico through your travels, reading, and research?

A corner of the studio

A corner of the studio

A:  It didn’t take long to become smitten with these beautiful people.  It happened on my first trip there in 1992 when Bryan and I, along with busloads of other tourists, were visiting the Oaxacan cemeteries on The Day of the Dead.  The Oaxaquenos tending their ancestor’s graves were so dignified and so gracious, even with so many mostly-American tourists tromping around on a sacred night, that I couldn’t help being taken with them and with their beliefs.  My studies since that time have given me a deeper appreciation for the art, architecture, history, mythology, etc. that comprise the extremely rich and complex story of Mexico as a cradle of civilization in the West.  It is a wonderfully heady mix and hopefully some of it comes through in my work as a painter and a photographer.

By the way I often wonder why the narrative of Mexico’s fascinating history was not taught in American public schools, at least not where I went to public school in suburban New Jersey.  Mexico is our neighbor, for goodness sake, but when I speak to many Americans about Mexico they have never learned anything about the place!  It’s shocking, but many people think only “Spring Break” and/or “Drug Wars,” when they hear the word “Mexico.”  As a kid I remember learning about Egypt, Mesopotamia, Greece, and other early civilizations in the Middle East, Europe, and Asia, but very little about Mexico.  We learned about the Maya, when it was still believed that they were a peaceful people who devoted their lives to scientific and religious pursuits, but that story was debunked years ago.  And I am fairly sure that not many Americans even know that Maya still exist in the world … in Mexico and in Guatemala.   There are a few remote places that were not completely destroyed by Spanish Conquistadores in the 16th century and later.  I’ve been to Mayan villages in Guatemala and seen shamans performing ancient rituals.  For an artist from a place as rooted in the present moment as New York, it’s an astounding thing to witness!  

Comments are welcome!

Pearls from artists* # 42

Balinese dancer

Balinese dancer

* an ongoing series of quotations – mostly from artists, to artists – that offers wisdom, inspiration, and advice for the sometimes lonely road we are on.

Things-as-they-are offer such an abundance of material that a photographer must guard against the temptation of trying to do everything.  It is essential to cut from the raw material of life – to cut and cut, but to cut with discrimination.  While working, a photographer must reach a precise awareness of what he is trying to do.  Sometimes you have the feeling that you have already taken the strongest possible picture of a particular situation or scene; nevertheless, you find yourself compulsively shooting, because you cannot be sure in advance exactly how the situation, the scene is going to unfold.  You must stay with the scene, just in case elements of the situation shoot off from the core again.  At the same time, it’s essential to avoid shooting like a machine-gunner and burdening yourself with useless recordings which clutter your memory and spoil the exactness of the reportage as a whole.

Henri Cartier-Bresson in Images a la sauvette

Comments are welcome!

Pearls from artists* # 40

Balinese boy in Hindu dress

Balinese boy in Hindu dress

* an ongoing series of quotations – mostly from artists, to artists – that offers wisdom, inspiration, and advice for the sometimes lonely road we are on.

A film is a succession of snapshots more or less posed, and it only very rarely gives us the illusion of the unexpected and rare.  Ninety films out of a hundred are merely interminable poses.  One doesn’t premeditate a photograph like a murder or a work of art.

Photography is rather like those huge American department stores where you find all you want:  old master paintings, locomotives, playing cards, tempests, gardens, opera glasses, pretty girls.  But steer clear at all costs of the floorwalkers.  They are terrible chatterbox bores who have no idea what they are saying.

A photographer for the Daily Mirror said to me:  “The most beautiful photos I’ve ever taken were on a day I had forgotten my film.”

That photographer is a poet, perhaps, but quite certainly an imbecile.  The photographer’s personality?

Obviously each of them blows his nose in his own fashion.  But the most successful photographs are not those that required the most trouble.

That would be just too easy.

Carlo Rim in On the Snapshot

Comments are welcome! 

Q: Your new work explores relationships to figures through the medium of soft pastel. What prompted this departure from photography?

A corner of the studio

A corner of the studio

A:  Actually it was the other way around.  As I’ve mentioned, I was a maker of pastel-on-sandpaper paintings long before I became a photographer (1986 vs. 2002).  However, the photos in the “Gods and Monsters” series were meant to be photographs in their own right, i.e., they were not made to be reference material for paintings.  in an interesting turn of events, in 2007 I started a new series, “Black Paintings,” which uses the “Gods and Monsters” photographs as source material.  Collectors who have been following my work for years tell me the new series is the strongest yet.  For now I’m enjoying where this work is leading.  The last three paintings are the most minimal yet and I’ve begun thinking of them as the “Big Heads.”  There is usually a single figure (“Stalemate” has two) that is much larger than life size.  “Epiphany” (above, left) is an example.  All of them are quite dramatic when seen in person, especially with their black wooden frames and mats.     

Comments are welcome!